For the unemployment rate to rise to 4.9 percent in December, breaking a 4.8 percent streak stretching back to the summer, struck local economist Kelly Cunningham as rare, he told me this afternoon.

“That’s very, very unusual,” he said. “I’ve never seen that happen, that we’ve seen the unemployment actually rise in December. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.”

Cunningham is the economist and senior fellow for the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, the think tank founded by mayoral candidate Steve Francis. Cunningham is a longtime watcher of the San Diego economy.

He said the winter holiday season typically means at least a straight line, if not a drop, in the unemployment rate as stores add workers to handle the gift-giving rush. But this season, it appears, retailers scaled back their seasonal hiring, Cunningham said. That combines with a ripple effect from high gas prices and increased difficulty to withdraw second mortgages for buying stuff to make a “slowing, stagnant economy,” he said.

But Cunningham stopped shy of saying the local economy would experience a recession, even if that is what the national economy faces soon.

“The thing that I think stands out for me that these problems that now the nation is paying attention to the things we’ve seen for a long time,” he said. “I think the pain that the rest of the country’s feeling in 2008, San Diego has already felt that — we’ve already had it or we’re having it, and we’re probably going to come out of it sooner.”

KELLY BENNETT

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